Mix and Match
Any combination of food and beer works at North by Northwest
North by Northwest Restaurant & Brewery10010 Capital of Texas Hwy. N., 231-8157
When North by Northwest opened in 1999, owner Davis Tucker's intent was to combine great craft-brewed beer and equally good food. To achieve this, Tucker hired the talented chef George Powell away from Mezzaluna and brought on brewmaster Don Thompson to set up the brewery. Miraculously, in the ever-changing world of Austin eateries, the team is still together today, putting out food and drink that attract sizable lunch and dinner crowds.
Tucker's ideal version of the American brewpub is the "Oregon-Washington" style. Hence the name and interior design of the restaurant. If you've ever enjoyed the WPA-built Timberline Lodge atop Mount Hood, just outside Portland, Oregon, you know where he got his inspiration. Lots of wood and rock with high, vaulted ceilings. There's a dark, cozy bar at the entrance, but when you get into the main area, the feeling is open and airy with a juxtaposition of old lodge style and modern metal and exposed A/C pipes. A fireplace lends a nice warmth during these winter months. There is a private dining room and places to drink and eat outside. Chairs are comfortable and the tables have sufficient real estate between them so that you never feel claustrophobic. Somehow, even with all the rock, steel, wood, and glass, NXNW never gets oppressively loud, even when every seat in the place is full.
Which was how we found it on our first visit. Jammed to the gills. Even the bar was full. I love to see how a restaurant handles pressure. Are the waitstaff running around looking shell-shocked? Do the customers keep looking at their watch and frowning? Not at NXNW. Our waiter, Jason, was the soul of calm contentedness. He quickly made sure we had a relaxing adult libation. Just about the time we thought it would be nice to order, he showed up, took time with us, and guided our choices like an expert.
We started with three of the regular appetizers. Roasted Garlic Bulbs ($5.95) featured three bulbs of garlic, cooked until caramelized and squeezed atop little crostinis smeared with goat cheese. The garlic was tasty: plump, sweet, and mild. The NXNW version of the ubiquitous Fried Calamari ($6.95) was one of the best I've had in Austin. So many places overcook the little squids until they resemble large rubber bands, but these were crispy and golden on the outside and flawlessly tender on the inside. We ended up ordering a second dish of the accompanying mustard sauce because it was so good we were putting it on the crostinis from the other appetizer.
The final appetizer was a disappointment after the stellar showing the first two made. In my book, Crab and Shrimp Cakes ($8.95) should be heavy on the shellfish. These were heavy on the bread and mushy. Thankfully, they were covered with a mountain of crisp and salty fried potatoes cut about the size of toothpicks. The associated salad with mangoes and red peppers dressed with sweet chili vinaigrette almost made us forget the disappointing cakes. Almost.
The main courses were all large servings suitable for big eaters. One member of our party is a duck connoisseur. She thought the Grilled Duck Breast ($16.95) was faultless. It was dressed with a thick mushroom marsala sauce and laid around a sinfully rich garlic parmesan polenta. Another had the Pepper Crusted Beef Tenderloin ($19.95). The beef was of superb quality, cut really thick and thankfully un-tenderized. It came cooked exactly as ordered and dressed with a mouth-watering port wine sauce. On the side was a marvelously rich portion of bleu cheese scalloped potatoes. I had the Tuna With Shrimp ($18.95), which was just slightly disappointing. Jason recommended it rare, and, as a sushi lover, I assumed that meant the fish was sushi grade. Instead, it had the texture of a fish that had been through the freeze-thaw cycle once or twice too many. The accompanying risotto had a nice Southwestern tang as did the appealing chipotle mayo sauce. All main courses share the same side seasonal dish, one aimed at folks who like their veggies crisp.
We tried three desserts. First up was Caramelized Cornbread Pudding ($6.45). It had a delightfully strong sweet corn flavor and was topped with a caramel and bourbon sauce. Next was the Crème Brulee ($4.95), a rich version with plenty of crème, but strangely served ice cold. We also tried the Seasonal Fruit Crisp ($6.45), which would have been enough for all three of us. It was the best of the three, served warm with lots of fresh berries, a pleasingly crisp topping, and delicious ice cream on the side. My two companions, aficionados of fruit crisps, deemed the NXNW version the best they had tried in Austin. When we went back a week later for lunch, we found that the huge crowds at noon evaporated by 1:15pm, which makes it worthwhile to go late. Our server this time was Maggie, and, just like our previous waitperson, she was unflappable, attentive, knowledgeable, and helpful. One of the first things we noticed was several of the prices were cheaper at lunch than dinner, which is a nice touch for the lunch crowd. We started with the Sizzling Mussels ($7.95), which were plump and cooked just right, swimming in a tomato and ale (!) broth. Next we decided to try out their brick oven with a Black Bean Pizza ($7.95). It arrived as a crispy crust covered with black beans and pico de gallo, then dabbed with fresh goat cheese. How they are able to put so many juicy ingredients on the crust and keep it crispy is beyond me, but it was a total success. We also ordered the Thursday special, the Beef Tri-tip ($10.95 lunch/$14.95 dinner). It was a flavorful and tender cut of meat, sliced thin, cooked rare, and draped over a twice-baked potato stuffed with blue cheese and chives. The rich sauce had just a little too much Worcestershire, but was flavorful and nice-looking. We also had the Angus Beef Burger ($6.95 lunch/ $8.95 dinner) with a slab of Huntsman Cheese and garlic fries. Wow! Enough food for a fullback. The burger was tender and juicy and the fries vie for Best of Austin standards.
After having tried (and loved) all the beers ($3.95 for a sampler tray of all six), I requested a sit down with brewmaster Don Thompson. I made no mention of the fact that I was reviewing the restaurant; to him, we were just customers. He discussed beer with me, shyly at first, but obviously proud of the gushing I was doing over the quality of his brew. I asked him which dishes went best with his beer, and he said the same thing the waitstaff had said. Don't sweat it trying to create the perfect mating of beer and food. Pick a drink you like, pick a dish you like, and just enjoy them. That kind of wraps up the whole NXNW experience, a victory of comfort over fussiness and carefully considered food prices along with some of the best beer in Austin. NXNW: Just enjoy it.
Sign up for the Chronicle Cooking newsletter
If you want to submit a recipe, send it to email@example.com